Hollywood darling David O. Russell teams up for the third time with impressive talents Robert De Niro, Jennifer Lawrence and Bradley Cooper in Joy, a semi-autobiographical film about an entrepreneurial legend. By all rights, this star-powered collaboration should have been a hit, but so far critics and viewers alike have been yelling “Cleanup on aisle three!” Adding insult to injury, the comedy-drama may do little more than cover its generous budget of $60 million.
So what, if anything, went wrong to make this underappreciated film inspire less joyful reactions? Our answer: it really depends on what you wanted from the film.
Joy is a classic “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” kind of story about a girl who can’t win with her dysfunctional family. It’s something writer-director-producer Russell is not used to, and at times it’s a bit more inconsequential and incoherent, like Silver Linings Playbook and American Hustle but without all of the action. However, Russell is a master of subtle and slender writing, and the less boisterous trappings create an inviting atmosphere for genius direction and performances; some so subtle they might not be fully appreciated by those who wanted just another gut-busting comedy with a little side-action of drama.
A proverbial drop in the bucket of lost childhood innocence, Joy (Lawrence) is a divorcée with children who she co-parents with her ex, Latino crooner Tony (Édgar Ramírez), who lives in her basement. She’s a casualty of adulthood, surrounded by a grandmother (Diane Ladd) who encouraged Joy’s imagination and love of inventing and a mother (Virginia Madsen) who hides from the world and watches soap operas. After a fateful accident on a sailboat, she’s struck with the inspiration to create a one-of-a-kind mop designed to be self-wringing and machine-washable, becoming a sensation on home shopping networks.
Backed by QVC executive Neil Walker (Cooper), she triumphs over adversaries in both the business world and her family. But no rise to success is complete without moments of hopelessness, which we get in the form of Joy ripping up her concept drawings—crayon scribbles on her daughters drawing-paper—in a melodramatic display. After doing this, Joy is horrified that she’s becoming her father (De Niro), whom she identifies as the destroyer of her youth after witnessing him tear apart her paper creations as a child.
The dysfunctional family overtones are personal and painful, and they resonate with audiences, and it’s the flash-in-the-pan that Russell usually delivers. Joy is filled to the brim with some of the best acting talents out there, but fickle viewers may not enjoy seeing these actors so toned-down, even though they give each performance their all. And there’s the slight issue of development; after all, you can’t build up Peggy’s (Elizabeth Röhm), Joy’s half-sister, resentment towards her little sister without at least showing us why there’s animosity in the first place. But this being a Russell film, it’s easily overlooked because of how natural this animosity seems. Every time Röhm and Lawrence are in the room together, there is enough tension to the point where you never question how or why things got that way—you accept it.
Why? Because that’s how some families are.
While it lacked a certain cleverness and the spark of Russell’s other films, Joy is a special film in it’s own right. An honest portrait of the classic dysfunctional family, its story of triumph over adversity is unique because the adversaries are as much inside Joy’s inner world as they are outside. And no matter what terrible things they do to her, she never gives up on her family, instead choosing to take the high road while letting them step all over her. It’s sad, but ultimately it’s an accurate portrait.
To some, Joy may be a bit pallid compared to Russell’s more celebrated works, but the dry humor and story of a self-made woman is intriguing, entertaining and utterly relatable, and Lawrence carries the film with one of her best performances yet.
While it may not be the ‘feel good’ some were expecting, Joy is a classy, smart film, and one that may be better appreciated after its home-release.
To contact Lifestyles editor Tanner Dedmon email firstname.lastname@example.org.